This Saturday evening the Jewish holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”) begins. Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting of the omer, a measure of harvested barley, every day. Originally, Shavuot was a summer pilgrimage festival, when farmers brought the “first fruits” of their harvests to the temple. After the fall of the second temple in the year 70, Shavuot became the annual celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So why do we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite convert, on Shavuot?
It was in the days of the judging of the judges, and there was a famine in the land, and a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to be an expatriate in the fields of Moab–he, and his wife, and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelekh, and the name of his wife was Naomi … (Ruth 1:1-2)
Naomi = My sweetness. She must have lived up to her name, at least in Moab, or her daughters-in-law would not have cried at the idea of parting from her.
Elimelekh died in Moab, and their two sons married Moabite women. After about ten years with no offspring, the two sons died. Then only the three widows remained: Naomi and her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. Naomi heard that the famine in Bethlehem was over, and she headed back to her old home. Her daughters-in-law followed her, but Naomi insisted they should return to their own mothers’ homes instead, where they would be more likely to remarry.
They raised their voice and they wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law (goodbye), but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:14)
Orpah = from oref = nape, back of the neck; dripping. The Talmud pointed out that Orpah dripped tears, while Ruth Rabbah (rabbinic commentary compiled around the 6th century) noted that “she turned her back on her mother-in-law”.
Then Ruth said her famous words: Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you; because where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people will be my people, and your god will be my god. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried … for (only) death will separate me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)
When they came to Bethlehem, Naomi told the women of the city: Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the bitterness of God to me is extreme. I was full when I went, and God has brought me back empty. (Ruth 1:20-21)
If only Mara were spelled the same way as mar = bitterness, Naomi’s remark would be straightforward. However, the Hebrew text spells Mara with the letter alef at the end, and that changes the word to “apparition” or “mirror”. Perhaps Naomi had become so empty, so despairing, that she was only a shadow or reflection of her former sweet self. Perhaps she was like a ghost, the walking dead. She did not even introduce Ruth, the young stranger beside her.
Ruth (pronounced “Root” in Hebrew) probably comes from the same root as riutah = she drenched, she provided abundant drink. The Talmud said Ruth’s name foretold that her great-grandson David would drench God with songs and hymns.
Ruth Rabbah traced her name to a similar word with the letter alef in the middle, ra-atah = she saw, she perceived. According to Ruth Rabbah, Ruth was perceptive, considering carefully the words of Naomi.
More recent scholars speculate that Ruth comes from a similar word with the letter ayin in the middle, reut = female neighbor or friend; striving, aspiration. Ruth was a faithful friend to Naomi even when Naomi gave up hope; and she never stopped striving to improve their lot, always working hard and thinking fast.
Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem destitute. Ruth supported them by gleaning barley and wheat, and she chose to glean in the fields of Boaz, one of Elimelech’s relatives. When the harvest ended, Ruth, following Naomi’s instructions, came to Boaz in the night and suggested that he marry her. As a childless widow, Ruth was entitled under Israelite law to get a son through her dead husband’s closest male relative. This “levirate marriage” would “redeem” her dead husband’s inheritance.
Boaz was not the closest relative, but he was the most willing, and by the end of the book, he had married Ruth and given her a son. In an all-around happy ending, Naomi’s life was redeemed through her grandson. This boy, Oveid, became the grandfather of King David.
So why do we study Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot?
Like Shavuot, the book is about first fruits: Ruth gleans barley, the grain that is counted before Shavuot, and wheat, the grain the Israelites brought to the Temple on Shavuot in the form of loaves of bread.
The book of Ruth also addresses the other theme of Shavuot, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Ruth is Judaism’s supreme example of a convert, and not just because of her famous words of commitment to Naomi and her religion. Traditional Judaism sees Ruth as the convert who merited being the great-grandmother of King David. What does conversion have to do with Sinai? The Vilna Gaon, an 18th-century rabbinic authority, declared that everyone at Mount Sinai was a convert, because there was no Jewish religion until God gave the Torah to the people there–to the Israelites and to those who came with them out of Egypt.
I believe the names of the women in the Book of Ruth also comment on conversion and attachment to a religion. Naomi represents the native Jew, in both her sweetness–the blessing of giving so many blessings –and her bitterness, the mirror of her past suffering. Orpah, who turns her back on her mother-in-law’s religion and stays in Moab, reminds me of someone who converts to Judaism when she marries a Jew, but does not take the religion seriously. Ruth is the passionate convert, always striving. Even if other Jews ignore her, she keeps pouring her soul into the cup of kindness and offering it again and again. She is also perceptive, seeing when to act, when to speak, and when to hold her peace. May we all be granted Ruth’s passion, her willingness to give, and her insight.
Last week we finished the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week we begin the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, as the Israelites get their marching orders. (At least, the tribes are counted and appointed their camping positions on the journey ahead, and the Levites are given their duties for disassembling and transporting the mishkan, God’s dwelling place. It takes a lot of organization to move all those people and all those holy items from one camp to the next.)
I will be on a personal retreat during the month of June, organizing my own life, so I won’t be posting any new “Torah sparks” for the next month. If you are looking for a spark of inspiration on any Torah portion in the first half of the book of Numbers, you can go to my website, http://www.mtorah.com, and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”. You’ll find my postings for the last two years on Numbers/Bemidbar. I’ll be back with new sparks in July!